We are investigating one of the great art mysteries of the 20th century. What happened to the Harkness Ballet - a company that produced 2 international touring companies, a youth ballet and its very own theater. Its training program sent more dancers into the world of professional dance than any other company of its time. And yet the name “Harkness” has been almost totally eliminated from books on dance history.
The dancers, choreographers, composers and designers were pioneers and experimenters. Themes of sexual repression, homoerotic love, tribalism and even the aftermath of rape were explored by some of the most famous choreographers of the time. All of the work and much of the music was original.
Founder REBEKAH HARKNESS gave opportunities and scholarships to dancers and students no matter their race, heritage, body shape or background. She arranged and composed music, designed pointe shoes and established a foundation that still supports dance today.
Yet she was hated and maligned by powerful New York critics who sought to destroy her - particularly critic CLIVE BARNES. Barnes had a personal agenda and never let up. Was it because Rebekah was rich and powerful as well as a woman? Was he attacking her personal taste and life style or the fact that she withdrew funding from the Joffrey Ballet which he loved? Was his influence so great that audiences were led to take sides?
Events start to unfold year by year, dance piece by dance piece. Conspiracy theories and chaos from within are uncovered while the daring of the pieces and the excellence of the dancers emerge as shining stars. In the meantime the bottom dropped out of Rebekah’s fortune. Cutbacks, economizing and even the attempt to finally solicit public funding failed. The world had clearly changed.
Rebekah died in 1982. Several of the key artists carried on with other companies creating a post Harkness dance world while the Harkness’ own accomplishments were buried behind hard to access archival walls. Our team has spent over 3 years recovering hidden video treasures.
More questions arise. How does funding effect art? Who owns art – the creator or the funder? Does art criticism determine success or is it FAKE NEWS? Did the walls at the sumptuous Harkness House actually have ears?
I grew up in New York City but didn’t dance or see dance performed until my late teens. At some point I became obsessed with Ballet and ballet dancers and studied not only the art form but everything I could learn about it. In 2010 ODC SF hired our video company Cinematiks to film a 13 week workshop taught by Maria Vegh, the former co-director of the Harkness School. It turned into a large project which included the creation of an interactive study guide for Ballet on DVD. Maria talked incessantly about the Harkness Ballet and what it had accomplished in the world of dance. I looked it up – and there was almost no mention of it in any of my dance history books and yet they had danced at the White House and performed for Princess Grace. Who was this Harkness Ballet and why has it been left out and forgotten? Research led us back to the days of the Ballet Russe and key characters began to emerge in the worlds of dance, politics, journalism, Broadway, music, visual art and design – characters both living and dead. Could something so influential just disappear off the face of the earth? For me the mystery deepened and a story of conflict, jealousy, misogyny and feud started to form. What happened and what does it mean to artists working today?
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Photos courtesy of Harkness Foundation for Dance, New York Public Library, mickey (Michele) morgan, Milton Oleaga, Elisabeth Carroll